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Onyx reviews: Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke

Just when New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux least expects it, the ghosts of the past leap out and blind-side him. The protagonist in James Lee Burke's long-running series set in and around New Orleans has always walked his own path, never much of a team player. The past has been a strong presence in Burke's novels and in Purple Cane Road the plot revolves around the unexplained disappearance and death of Robicheaux's mother over three decades ago.

Robicheaux is carrying out a free-lance investigation of another old crime when the unsought revelation is thrust on him. A woman is on death row for the vicious murder of her abusive father and Robicheaux believes that the complete story of the gruesome attack has never been told. A pimp who may have knowledge of the crime stuns Robicheaux by saying that the detective's mother—who had run off on his father and their tumultuous relationship—had become a prostitute and was murdered by two New Orleans police officers because she had witnessed another crime.

Robicheaux's last memory of his mother is of seeing her drunk, dancing in a bar on Purple Cane Road, when he was in high school. To say that his conflicted feelings about his mother were unresolved would be an understatement, but he is undone by this news. "My mother's memory, the sad respect I always had for her, had been stolen from me," he says.

Unconcerned about the implications on his career as a small town police detective, Robicheaux begins to investigate the story on his own time, but is thwarted at every move by collusion, corruption and violence. Burke portrays the New Orleans police department—and Louisiana politics in general—as a loose association of corrupt and dangerous men…and women. Every time Robicheaux is about to make progress in his search for the truth about his mother, an important witness is murdered. Sometimes the murder is committed to prevent him from learning more, but sometimes the murder is just a by-product of the normal police routine.

To complicate matters, Robicheaux must deal with Johnny Remeta, a youthful and innocent-appearing hit man who has his own mother-issues to deal with. Remeta is a loose cannon, similar enough in character and ultimate goals to Robicheaux that the two form an uneasy alliance. Robicheaux saves Remeta's life during an assassination attempt by two New Orleans police officers; Remeta feels honor-bound to repay the debt to Robicheaux. However, the hit man also has designs on Robicheaux's adopted teenage daughter, Alafair. Robicheaux is torn between ending this rogue killer's campaign and manipulating Remeta to carry out his own vendetta.

Purple Cane Road, as with other books in the series, is touched with magic realism, a tinge of surreal that influences the story. In the past, the ghosts of the people who he is trying to avenge have visited Robicheaux, offering their counsel or their emotional support. Dreams feature prominently throughout this novel, offering a sense of foreboding and prescience.

Burke is a master of the modern literary crime novel. His characters are complex and have evolved in believable but unpredictable ways over the twelve books of the series. Robicheaux's daughter has developed from a frightened child to a confused but strong-willed teen. His former partner Clete Purcel, continuing his ruinous out-of-control spiral, is now a private detective who has fallen into violent disfavor with his former colleagues. And Robicheaux himself continues to battle the demons of Vietnam, alcohol, abandonment by his family and the violent subculture of Louisiana's legal system.

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